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Education Opinion

What Would a Progressive Edu-ALEC Look Like?

By Nancy Flanagan — February 21, 2014 4 min read
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Mention the word “policy” and most teachers’ eyes glaze over. Actually, most Americans’ eyes glaze over. Unless you can edit policy down into a catchy, snarky sound bite--effectively putting a face on a political dartboard--lots of folks just aren’t interested. Pass the popcorn.

Until, of course, a new policy directly impacts their day-to-day living, their personal passion (like owning a gun)--or their children. At which point, the long process of making policy--who fed the sausage-makers, and why--is in the rear view mirror.

This is precisely the position American public school teachers find themselves in, at the moment. All the groundwork destabilizing America’s best idea--a free, high-quality fully public education for every child--has been laid. Now it’s just a matter of presenting a series of policy “options”--Parent “triggers?” “Enterprise Zones” for private-school vouchers? “Alternative certifications” to give new college grads a couple of resume'-boosting gap years before grad school?

Frankly, it’s too late for educators to complain about not having a place at their own table. The table is in another room in another city--and teachers aren’t invited. Policy controls their work to a rapidly increasing degree. For younger teachers, it’s boiled-frog syndrome--having federal and state policies deeply impacting their curriculum, instruction, assessment practice and their own evaluations are just the way it is. Antique teachers, like me, remember a time when local control (for better--and much worse) ruled the day in public education.

I was chatting about this major shift toward top-down education policy with my friend Betsy Coffia, who has just launched her campaign for a seat in the Michigan legislature. We were hashing over the incredible impact that ALEC has had on our own state’s education policies--and our anger over the idea that a private, mega-funded group with a clear agenda could raise funds, hire wonky whiz kids to write and pre-package legislation, then offer those policies to sympathetic legislators who went to the trouble of getting themselves elected.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? No.

But is it fair to expect state legislators and members of Congress to be fully informed about the entire range of policy issues, to craft a stream of innovative policy levers based on research and principle? It’s a big job, and in states like ours with strict term limits, you can see how handy it would be to have shortcuts (a euphemism if there ever was one) to proposing legislation and getting it passed. So people will re-elect you.

Even though the whole question feels wrong to me, it’s fun to think about what a progressive, pro-public education policy house with the resources and political capital of an ALEC would produce. I realize that “progressive” is an imperfect descriptor--and that there are already many partisan and leftish think tanks and organizations producing policy models reflecting the idea that market competition or another set of standards will “save” public education. I also realize that Bill Gates is spending 20% of his hundreds of millions in advocacy to bring policy-makers who hate ALEC into this camp.

What if there were another source for policy models--policy based on working toward equity, preserving what’s good in our vast public school infrastructure? What kinds of policies--not reactions to misguided policies, but new ideas--would they produce?

How would they support and develop underfunded, heavily stressed urban districts? What would policies around school and teacher accountability look like, if they weren’t punitive and based on tests? What guidelines for state and federal funding could be established? What policy incentives would improve teaching? Bring curriculum into the 21st century? Build stronger community schools?

What ideas could we--educators--develop and pass along to policy-makers?

Recently, my state representative, Ray Franz, who sits on the Education Committee, called me to talk about a piece of legislation that required retention of all 3rd graders who didn’t pass the state reading assessment. There is plenty of research and opinion about why that’s a very bad idea, but he had seen a presentation “from Florida” and was convinced. We spoke at length, and I had some good information to share. When we ended the conversation, he thanked me and said he didn’t really understand teaching, because he was a meat cutter.

I’d like to think that the American ideal of ordinary folks who go into public service isn’t dead or completely compromised. I’d also like to think that every teacher who asked for the proverbial “place at the table” had some great ideas that could be shaped into innovative policy--policy that provided equitable solutions to problems in education.

What are your policy ideas, educators? If you were in a position to propose legislation and advocate for your policy ideas, where would you start?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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